Election Preview: Senate Retirements and A Loss of Institutional Knowledge
With under a month to go until Election Day and so many competitive Senate races and control of the Chamber up for grabs, it is easy to forget that there are a handful of senators who have chosen to retire from seats that their party is expected to easily keep in November. Among these retirements is Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), a two-term Senator and a member of a powerful political and conservationist family. Udall is a leading voice on progressive environmental policies, especially climate change, and how these issues impact public lands. Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), the Assistant House Democratic Leader who mostly shares Udall’s priorities, is expected to win this seat handily.
Sen. Udall is being joined in retirement by Sens. Mike Enzi (R-WY) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN), two giants of the Senate who will leave an indelible mark on the institution and their colleagues. Enzi and Alexander—who are considered traditional conservatives—are likely to give way to Republicans who sit on the more populist end of the political spectrum, thus shifting the balance of the GOP Conference.
When Sen. Mike Enzi announced his retirement in May 2019, it did not make many headlines outside of Wyoming or make an impression on anyone that doesn’t follow the Senate – or the budget process – closely. Enzi, who is completing his fourth term in the Senate, has served as Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee since 2015 and is a master of the often-complicated budget and reconciliation processes. It was at least partially due to his savvy that Republicans were able to pass the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act through reconciliation in 2017. However, Enzi also took a bipartisan approach to reforming the budget process, which is largely considered broken. He advocated for greater involvement from congressional entities like the Congressional Budget Office and Government Accountability Office, as well as working as a member of the Senate Finance Committee to write realistic targets for congressional budgets.
Sen. Enzi’s budget prowess, perhaps partially attributable to being one of one of only two accountants in the Senate, will be sorely missed. His likely replacement—former Rep. Cynthia Lummis, who has cast herself as Enzi’s heir apparent on fiscal issues— is a clear departure from Enzi, who is viewed as a reliable soldier for Senate Leader Mitch McConnell. In fact, Lummis gained notoriety in the House as a member of the Freedom Caucus and had a strained relationship with House GOP leadership. Lummis has run on her reputation of sometimes bucking leadership, but it remains to be seen if that continues when she reaches the Senate, where Sen. McConnell tends to exert a tight grip on his conference.
The decision by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) not to seek a fourth term will deprive the Senate of an able legislator and policy expert, and a trusted lieutenant to Leader McConnell. Alexander has extensive experience in the arena, having served as Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush, and as Governor of Tennessee for eight years. In the Senate, Alexander is viewed as one of the closest allies and confidants of Leader McConnell, a position that gives him extensive influence on the legislation that is considered by the body. He is also the Chairman of the powerful Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, which has jurisdiction over many of the most hot-button issues from the last several years, including attempts to replace the Affordable Care Act. Additionally, he serves as the Chairman of the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, allowing him to support programs in his native Tennessee, including the substantial research investments made at the Oak Ridge Laboratory.
While there is no question that Alexander is close to Republican Senate Leadership, he is well-regarded by his Democratic colleagues and has worked with them to pass a number of landmark pieces of legislation, including the 21st Century Cures Act and an update to elementary and secondary education laws.
Sen. Alexander’s likely replacement is Bill Hagerty, a prominent Tennessee businessman and former Ambassador to Japan in the Trump Administration. Hagerty has campaigned with a more populist message, which contrasts with Sen. Alexander’s rather understated conservatism. However, Hagerty has ties to the traditional Republican establishment, having served as White House Fellow in the George H.W. Bush Administration and as national finance chairman for Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2008. We expect him to be a loyal team member for Leader McConnell.
Like Sen. Udall, Sens. Alexander and Enzi’s departures are not likely to impact which party controls the Senate in the 117th Congress. That said, the indelible marks all three have left on the institution and their absences from the Senate will certainly have an impact on how the body operates in the 117th Congress. Their deep wells of knowledge will be sorely missed by their colleagues, and the causes that count them as champions.
Read “10 Most Vulnerable House Members” from Roll Call.